164-Ask Me Anything: Joe Lamp’l Answers Your Gardening Questions For Mid-Summer

| Care, Podcast

Between my podcast listeners, social media channels, and members of my Online Gardening Academy™, I receive a lot of gardening questions. This week on the podcast, I am answering some of those questions from members of the joegardener® Facebook group.  I’ve invited Erin, my Director of Online Media, to return as co-host for this gardening Q&A episode we’re calling Ask Me Anything. In this episode, we’re answering your gardening questions. So let’s get started!

Erin: I’m ready. So let’s dive in, and let’s start with a compost question. I know how much, well, actually, Joe, everybody knows how much you love compost. So let’s start there. So Devon T. asked – he said he started a five-gallon compost in March, and he’s not really seeing any visual changes yet, but he’s in an HOA so he can’t have a traditional compost heap. So he’s gotta stick with the five-gallon compost system. And he’s wondering if it’s reasonable to expect any decent compost from that method. He says right now he’s not really seeing it decomposing as quickly as he might like, but he’s staying up with the turning and it seems to look and smell okay. Just not decomposing as he hoped.


compost bins

Over the years, I’ve tried every type of composting system, from open piles to expensive, dual-bin, closed devices. My system of choice is a 3-bin compost system using free untreated hardwood shipping pallets. This is the new compost bin that I recently built at my GardenFarm.


Joe: Yeah. I talk about having the critical mass size quite a bit whenever I talk to people about getting great results with your compost and seeing it cook down and get ready, and you need more than that. The science is there, and it will happen. But there is something to be said about having enough nitrogen and carbon inputs for that to happen. And I always advocate for, usually, I say like a four by four by four heap. Maybe three by three by three, but five gallons is jut not going to do it really. It’s frustrating. I know Devon is trying to make it happen and he’s doing the best he can with what he has to work with. But I want you to be encouraged and not discouraged and know that you can get results. But for people like you, Devon, I always recommend that you find a place to donate your inputs. 

Maybe it’s a community garden heap because you’re in an HOA and you’ve got those restrictions. But you’ve got great material, and you want to keep it out of the landfill, and you want some compost out of it. So maybe you can combine your inputs with other people’s inputs. And then when everything is ready, I would think that the deal would be if you’re going to give in, you can get back. And so you’ll be able to take some of that finished compost that’s been combined with others that have allowed that mass to get up to a critical size and make it happen a lot faster.

I don’t want to dissuade you, Devon, but I’d rather you see results faster. And that five-gallon practice is probably not going to get you there.

Erin: Now, Joe, if somebody is really set on continuing with a five-gallon system, will it not decompose at all in your opinion, or is it just a matter of being more patient? And also, I know my brother actually uses a five-gallon system, and he knows that he needs to also stop putting in inputs. Because if you’re always putting in new inputs, that’s always going to be working against you. But even in that case, are you saying that it’s just a matter of waiting longer or just not recommending that five-gallon at all? Joe: Well, scientifically it will happen. Just think about it this way. If you were to leave a head of lettuce in the refrigerator for a period of time, it’s breaking down. It’s decomposing, right? Believe me, I know that all too well.

Erin: Sounds like you need to clean out your refrigerator more often, Joe.

Joe: No, I practice the five-gallon composting method in my refrigerator too, but I do have a bigger system. So it will happen, but you’ve got to have the carbons and the nitrogens. And you have to have a certain amount of moisture, and you have to have that all-important oxygen. And Devon, you didn’t say whether you’ve got a lid on top of that five-gallon bucket or not, but if it’s in the house, you probably do. And that’s cutting out on the oxygen supply that you need for it to be aerobic and therefore compost faster. So if you’re denying any of those four things in the proper ratios, then it’s going to take longer. And so I think that’s probably what we’re dealing with here.

Erin: Okay. Next up, we got a question also on compost from Bren. O. And he’s wondering about adding compost to the planting hole and wondering if that can backfire. He says he’s heard some other suggestions that it’s a bad idea because the roots will concentrate within the compost amended hole and not grow outward in search of nutrients. And I know we’ve touched on this, but maybe we can touch on it again, Joe, for Bren.

Joe: Okay. Well, Bren might’ve heard that from our podcast last week or the week before when I talked about it and my Top 10 Pet Peeves about poor planting practices. And, Bren, logic would have you think that the more cozy or cushy or sweet that you can make that planting hole with organic matter and compost, the better. If you or I were a plant getting put into a hole, we’d want that all around our roots too, right? I’m raising my hand right there.

Erin: Hopefully that doesn’t happen, but I get it.

Joe: It’s like a kind of a down comforter. You want that. You want to be underneath that, right?

Erin: Right, right. Absolutely.

Joe: But here’s the science behind it. And there have been many studies in university and extension services that have shown that when you put a plant in that environment where you extract the native soil, which is never as good as that created soil environment that you’re talking about with compost.

And so you put your plant in there and then you backfill with the good stuff. And when I say the good stuff, the improved stuff, because native soil is good too. Then you are creating a false environment for those roots. They’re going to get a taste of that quickly – that beautiful, composted soil that you’ve back-filled with. If the roots are in an environment where that soil is so ideal, they’re going to kind of stay there because as the roots expand, just because they don’t know that it’s going to end, the good thing is about to come to an end and then they hit the part that’s the native soil, which is, let’s just call it harder or firmer or not as cushy. They don’t really want to exert the extra effort.

So they’re going to hit that and they’re going to go, “I don’t know about that. I kinda like it right where I am.” So they tend to keep those roots in that ideal environment and they don’t establish as quickly. And so you’re going to have results that aren’t as advantageous over time, your plants aren’t going to be as established and they just need to be in that native soil from the start. So as good as it sounds, avoid the temptation, dig out the native soil, remove the rocks in the big clumps, and put your plant back in. Backfill it with the native soil. Skip the organic matter, all blended into that.

Now, let me just paint one picture here. If you were industrious enough to know that those roots are going to get out to a certain range at their maturity, and you wanted to dig up that entire area and make it all nicely improved composted soil – there’s an argument for that, but the practicality of that is not really realistic. So do make it simple. Do what the science says in the tests that have shown this and just backfill it with the native soil. You’ll see quicker establishment and greater results over time.

Erin: Believe the science, people. Believe the science. So shifting gears. Shepard L. wrote in wanting to know if there’s anybody in the gardening realm that you’ve been dying to interview but haven’t been able to get on the books yet.

Joe: So the guy that’s really the guru of mushrooms in a huge way, Paul Stamets. He’s become a really big deal. He’s somebody that we’ve reached out to and his team has said, “yeah, we’d like to do it too.” But because he’s a busy guy on the go too, we have not coordinated our calendars to get him on the podcast.
But I’ve learned so much about mushrooms from prior podcasts that we’ve had. And it’s just fascinating. And I know that many of our listeners are loving it too, and they’ve recommended Paul. And so we are in the process of trying to make that work. And it’s just a matter of coordinating the calendar.

And this is one that a lot of people have asked for, and it’s Monty Don out in England. The TV gardening guru rockstar guy that has great episodes and everybody loves his presentation style.

Erin: He’s an icon in the British world.

Joe: Yeah, he is. And so he is also somebody that we’ve been in touch with. We haven’t been able to, and they’ve expressed interest as well. But when you’re reaching out to the icon people, a lot of people are too. And we’ve been fortunate. I have to say, I had to kind of think about who is it that we’ve tried to reach out to, that we haven’t talked to yet, that we’ve wanted to. And we’ve kind of hit everybody.

Erin: Yeah, and these will happen as well. It’s just a matter of time. They’re in the hopper. They just haven’t come to fruition quite yet.

Joe: Right. We pretty much had really good success in reaching the people and speaking with the people that we’ve wanted to talk to. But there’s always the next one. So that keeps it exciting.

Erin: Always more to look forward to with The joegardner® Show.

Joe: I’ll say. You never know what’s next – like this podcast.

Erin: Keep you on your toes. All right. Well, we got a few questions, Joe, on pepper plants and peppers, it’s been a weird year for peppers. You and I have talked about this and we’ve had a lot of chatter about this in our social media groups too, about how peppers have just been so slow to grow for most people this year. It’s been an interesting year for peppers, but Mark G. wanted to know specifically how to know when peppers are ripe.



Most peppers stay green until they mature to yellow, red, purple, or orange. The reason for the color change in peppers is due to the breakdown of chlorophyll.


Joe: Okay. By the way, it has been a really weird year in a lot of different ways, including with peppers.

So what you need to know when you’re growing your peppers is hopefully you’ve got an idea of what they look like when they’re mature as to size and to color. So you can eat a pepper as it’s maturing. It’s not going to have the flavor profile that you’re looking for because of what you’re growing, but it is edible. It’s just that it will be more bland, and it won’t have the pop that you’re looking for. But as it gets to full size, it may not have colored up. For example, all peppers start off green, but then they change to their final color over time. You can eat it as green, and it’s going to taste different than if you left it on.

So when is a pepper ripe? When it ultimately reaches its full mature size and the color that it is once it’s gone from green to whatever that color is.

Erin: Is it true that all peppers turn away from green?

Joe: Yes, they do eventually, but it can take longer depending on the type of pepper. Some peppers stay green until they mature to yellow, or red, or purple, or whatever the color. So even though we eat green bell peppers all the time, for example, technically they’re not ripe yet. And many, if not most peppers, stay green until they mature to that yellow, or red, or purple, or orange, for example. But the reason for the color change in peppers is due to the breakdown of chlorophyll.

Now peppers can ripen to a lot of colors, as I mentioned, but the most common is red. Even for a variety sold for green use. If you leave it on the plant, it will eventually become red. Now that said, some varieties have been bred to remain green for longer, but they still eventually turn red if you leave them on the plant.

And by the way, the color change away from green also coincides with seed that is ripe. And that’s important for anyone that’s saving the seed from that pepper variety. Even though the pepper seeds are viable prior to a fully ripe pepper, the seed doesn’t last as long in storage. So if you’re going to save your seed from a pepper plant, you want to definitely wait until it is fully mature.

So there you go. Now, hopefully, that helps.

Erin: Okay. So then Natalia L. also had a pepper question. She’s wondering if you prune your pepper plants. And if you do, why and how do you prune them? And if you don’t, why don’t you prune them?

Joe: Ah, that’s a good question, Natalia. Thank you for asking that. So it depends on where I am at the time that the pepper’s growing if I prune it. In other words, if I get busy and then the pepper is growing on its own and it looks good, it’s branched out, and if peppers are forming. Then I don’t bother.

But in a perfect world, if I’m out there at the time that I’ve put that seedling in the ground and it’s got three sets of leaf nodes, at least, so it’s tall enough. So it’s developed three different sets of leaf nodes. If it’s going to be a big pepper, like a bell pepper is usually a larger plant, and it produces a lot of branches. But it can be kind of leggy if you don’t prune it back. So I’ll go and I’ll cut just about a quarter-inch above that third set of leaf nodes.

So if you’ve got that picture in your head. You’re listening to me, Erin, I think. If you’re not playing Suduko? Are you listening?

Erin: Yep, I’m with you. I’m right here.

Joe: Ok, just making sure you’re tracking. So as you make that cut just about a quarter-inch above that third set of leaf nodes, that’s going to stimulate those dormant leaves to branch. So for every one cut that you make, you’re going to get two new branches. So now you’re going to have a stockier plant with more branches. So that’s a good thing on a plant, like a bell pepper that gets really tall and the branches start to get out there. And then the weight of the fruit is coming on. That can cause those branches to break.

Erin: But it’s a little bit of a judgment call for gardeners depending on their situation and the type of plant they’re growing.

Joe: Absolutely it is. And there are many years like this year, I’ve pruned a few of my bell peppers, others I didn’t get around to. And so they’re growing unpruned and they look great. They’re just getting pretty tall.


pepper plants

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of pruned vs. unpruned pepper plants. The plant on the left wasn’t pruned, and it’s taller and leggier. The middle plant and the one on the right were pruned shortly after planting. As you can see, they’re stockier yet plenty dense.


Erin: And it’s a great opportunity to experiment. If you’re growing more than one pepper plant, a gardener could experiment and see what they are happiest with as the season progresses, right?

Joe: Yes. And I created some experiments like that this season by pruning some and not pruning some other pepper plants. And the interesting thing is when you cut those branches back on the pepper plants, you’re taking off potentially a lot of height compared to the one that you didn’t prune. But within a very short period of time, that plant that you prune grows so fast with twice the branching, and it catches up to the other one. So now you have more branching, so more opportunities for more peppers. And it’s a thicker plant, which may or may not be a good thing. Light and air circulation are always important too. 

Erin: Yeah. Okay, good. And then our last pepper question was from Bernadette L. who says she’s about ready to give up on growing peppers, Joe because her plants grow beautifully.

They’re healthy, they’re lush, but they have little or no fruit production. So what could be some reasons for that, Joe? 

Joe: I think it would be one of three things or a combination of three things. First of all, we already addressed the fact that this year has just been a strange year with the weather. Now, some parts of the country probably aren’t as impacted as others. But here in zone 7b in Atlanta, Georgia (Southeast U.S.), it has been a really weird year for tomatoes and peppers in that we’ve had some blossom drop where the temperatures have been either too high or too low out of the ideal range. 

And then peppers are in the same family with tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes. And they’ll just abort their flowers. And so, therefore, you’re not going to have peppers. Now, does that mean you’re not going to have peppers the whole season? No, but you’re going to lose the ones that were there when the flower buds dropped. So now they have to reform. 

So it may be, Bernadette, that you’re going to have peppers. You will have peppers because peppers like it really hot. And so once the temperatures stabilize and get nice and warm for a long enough period of time, new flowers are going to come on. And you’re going to have your peppers. So it can be an environmental thing, at least for now. 

The other thing is, hopefully, you have enough sun because you’re going to need that for flower and fruit production. Six hours at a minimum, and hopefully you get more than that because peppers really need a lot of good, strong sunlight in order to produce the flowers, to make the fruit. 

The third reason would be too much nitrogen. And you talked about how good your peppers look, and peppers can look really good when you give them a lot of fertilizer, especially if it’s higher on the nitrogen side, to the detriment of phosphorus, which is the middle number. So N for nitrogen, the first number, and then P for phosphorus, and then K potassium. But the nutrients that can impact whether or not you have fruit is the ratio between how much nitrogen you’ve got to how much phosphorus.  The more nitrogen you have, which is responsible for promoting the lush, green growth of the plant, can also when it’s too high on that side, inhibit flower and fruit production. So too much of the energy of the plant is going into making lots of beautiful, lush foliage to the detriment of flower and fruit production. 

So what you want there, if that is the case for you or for anybody in this case – at the point that you’re fertilizing, when flowers come on, you want the middle number of the three numbers. The NPK – you want the P, the middle number to be higher than the first number. Higher than nitrogen so that the focus of the nutrient is going into roots and fruit. And so you want a higher N. 

So any or all of those, Bernadette, would be what you want to look at. But it’s one of those things at least. 

Erin: So keep persisting, Bernadette. You can do this. You can grow peppers. 

Joe: Absolutely. 

Erin: So Marjorie O. is thinking ahead. And it’s interesting because, in the time that I’ve been with you, it seems like more and more gardeners are showing an interest in gardening in the fall. And that’s what Marjorie is doing. She wants to know about planting potatoes in the fall. And she happens to be a zone 7 gardener. Talk about that, and obviously for anybody in various zones across the North American continent. 



The risk of planting potatoes at the wrong time of year is, if they’re in the ground for too long, the tubers can rot and you may not have any potatoes at all.


Joe: Right. Okay. So, Marjorie, you’re in a part of the country that gets cold, but not too cold. And it’s never really so warm all the time. So you’re in a region where you probably should be planting those in late winter. You want about 100 to 110 days before that last frost of the season. 

And so if you try to plant those in the fall, you could maybe get away with it. But the risk to you, even though potatoes are a cool-season crop, if they’re in the ground for too long, as they’re growing, that tuber can rot and you may not get your potatoes at all. Whereas if you lived in a warmer climate, you do want to plant in the fall because you need that time of cooler temperatures relative to the rest of the year, and you need a lot of those days.

So for those in warmer climates, you do want to plant in the fall. For people like Marjorie in zone 7a, 7b in the Southeast, you want to plant your potatoes midwinter or something like that. And then if you live in a cold part of the country, then mid-spring would be more for your target time. So again, it just depends on where you live, but you did tell us that. And based on where you told us, try to hold off from planting them in the fall. 

Erin: It’s always so helpful when someone submits the zone, they’re gardening in when they submit a question too. That’s always so key. 

Joe: Yeah, that’s true. I know that we get questions all the time where they don’t really say where they live. And it really helps us address them much faster when we know where they live. 

Erin: Definitely. On to Yvette P. ‘s question. She’s in zone 6a, and she’s planning to start a raised bed for asparagus, Joe. And she’s wanting to know, is it best to start asparagus from seed or with crowns, and also timing? Is it best to plant them in the fall or in the early spring? 

Joe: Okay. That is a really good question. This is one of those trade-off questions. It’s been fun to watch our Master Seed Starting students in the course, and a lot of them started asparagus from seed in mid-February – which is the time that you would start asparagus seed if you were to do it. 

So basically you sow seeds – if you’re doing seeds indoors – about eight weeks before your last risk of frost. And you can plant outside up to maybe three weeks before the last frost, but you want those seedlings up and growing substantially before you get them planted outside. 

So why do you sow asparagus seeds versus crowns? And crowns are basically dormant one-year-old plants. So it’s just basically this clump of roots. That’s what a crown is. And you can plant a crown or you can plant seedlings. If you start from seed and you plant out the seedlings, it’s going to take you a year longer than if you sowed crowns or planted crowns. And even when you plant crowns, asparagus has to get established. And it’s at least two years, and probably closer to three years or the third season before you can actually harvest asparagus of a size that is worthy of your table and ready to go. So it still takes a long time, but you can do that a year quicker if you sow crowns, which is why most people do it that way versus seeds. 

Now, back to the seeds, an advantage to that, even though it may take a year longer, is that you have a good chance of growing a healthier, more productive crop of asparagus by selecting the seeds and growing out the seeds yourself versus what you would be offered as crowns. So there’s a trade-off. Either way, you want to plant in early spring typically, and then you’re off to the races, but it’s a very slow horse. It takes a few years. 

Erin: And it’s hard to wait because homegrown asparagus is so amazing. 

Joe: Yes, it is. Nothing better than that, for sure.



Here are a few of the tomatoes I’ve harvested on July 5th from my 45 tomato plants. While I love the flavor of a good heirloom tomato, I think I enjoy the diversity of color, shapes, and sizes just as much!


Erin: We’re gonna move on to some tomato questions, Joe. Mr. 45 tomato plants, Joe Lamp’l. You’ve got Timothy S. who’s asking about early blight. He’s wondering what it is and how to correct it without using something like a Serenade fungicide spray. He’s actually got more plants than you by a long shot, Joe. He’s got 400 plants. 

Joe: Wow!

Erin: And half of them are contaminated with early blight. 

Joe: Oh, okay. Timothy, don’t feel bad because early blight is a fact of tomato life. It lives in the soil. It’s airborne, and no matter what you do, you’re still probably going to get it.

And so don’t beat yourself up about it. Tomatoes, first of all, are one of the hardest things to growTo me, it’s the hardest thing to grow of all summer crops, which is probably why I like growing it so much. Cause I love the challenge, but I am not immune to those diseases. As I am saying these words, I’m looking outside towards my 45 plants. I too, Timothy, can empathize with you because I have blight on my plants right now. And I have different types of blight this year that I didn’t have last year, but I definitely have early blight. So what do you do about it? A couple of things. You add a generous layer of mulch at the soil surface. So about a two to three-inch layer of mulch that will suppress pathogens – those fungal diseases in the soil that will come up and impact your plants as early blight. If you can put a layer of mulch over the top of the soil, that’s going to reduce or minimize the amount of risk that you have from your plants getting the blight from that side. 

But they’re still getting blown in or coming in through the air. And once your plant is infected, it’s infected. So the best thing you can do is address it ahead of time by applying a fungicide. And I know you don’t want to spend the money. You have so many plants. You’d have to do it before your plants got infected. Because once the disease is there, you cannot cure it. All you can try to do is minimize its spread. And so at that point, whether it’s Serenade or copper fungicide, fungicides have to be used with discretion. An organic approach would be the copper fungicide, but that’s copper. And copper is a heavy metal that can accumulate.

So if you keep using it through the season and then the next season, and the next season, well then you have potentially a dangerous abundance of copper in your soil. Even though it’s an important mineral, you don’t want too much of it. So what I do, I try to just stay ahead of the problem. As I see it, I’m cutting it out. I don’t even spray the fungicide anymore – the copper fungicide – even though I probably should. I’m stubborn like that, I guess. So I try to stay ahead of it and cut out those infected leaves. But there I’m not curing the plant. The disease is already in the plant. I’m just trying to minimize exposure of the spores on those leaves from getting onto the next plant. And by the way, as I’m cutting out the foliage, I’m cutting it all the way back to the main stem. So I’m not just cutting out the leaves. I know it’s an exercise in futility if I just try to chase a leaf. Chase the whole leaf, going back to the main stem. Cut that out. 

And before I move onto my next plant, I’m sterilizing the blade with alcohol. So I’m spraying my blades with alcohol to make sure that I don’t transfer any fungal risk to the next plant. And I don’t work in the morning when the foliage is still wet, because that’s another way that you can spread the disease. Wet foliage is a very common way. So I do it late in the day once everything is dry – or not after a rain. And I minimize the handling of the plants as much as possible too. Because just when you’re getting in there looking at your plants and then you go to the next plant, you can transfer the fungus that way too.

Anyway, it’s very common. And all you can try to do is either stay ahead of it by applying a fungicide before you ever have a problem or just try to chase it and stay on top of it. And then it’s just a race to see how many tomatoes you can get before the plant ultimately is overcome. 

Sometimes the plants recover. They go through the cycle. It doesn’t necessarily kill the plant. It just makes them look really bad. Then they kind of rebound later in the season and the fungus has run its course. And then you can just wait it out that way too. Hopefully, that gives you a little solace knowing that you’ll probably continue to battle it all the time. 

The other thing I will say is, I don’t know if you have the luxury of being able to do this because you have so many plants, but crop rotation is very important. You should not be planting back in that same location for about four seasons, because that fungus that lives in the soil can remain in the soil.

And if you come back the next season and plant again and again, after that, you’re just asking for trouble. You just increase your chances of getting it. 


Diseased tomato

Tomatoes are very disease-prone, which makes them one of the hardest summer crops to grow. As you can see here, my garden is not immune to those diseases. It’s that challenge that makes me love growing them even more.


Erin: And we have a great podcast on crop rotation too.  So be sure and check that out,  Timothy. 

And we have another question on tomatoes from Allie N. It sounds like she’s using your ultimate tomato cages, Joe. And she’s wondering if you shake the tomato cages or if you hand pollinate your tomato plants. How do you pollinate your tomatoes? 

Joe: Okay, so I love this question because a lot of people don’t realize, or some people don’t realize that tomato flowers are self-pollinating. They’re called perfect flowers because they have both the male and female parts on the same flower. So the part of the male flower is called the stamen. That’s where the pollen lives. And then that falls onto the female collector called the stigma and, viola, you have pollination right there.

Erin: Viola? 

Joe: Viola! That’s the word I use. That’s what my parents used to say when I wanted to know how all that worked. 

Erin: How have I worked for you for all this time and I’ve never heard you say “viola?”

Joe: Because we haven’t had those kinds of discussions before. But that said, shaking never hurts, okay?  But that pollination typically happens kind of in a wind event. So shaking the cage is simulating that wind and then causing that pollen to release from the stamen. And shaking it is something to add to it if you want. I never really do. Maybe I do, and I don’t consciously do it because I always have a lot of tomatoes set. But shaking it is really easy because it’s all you need to do.

But if you really want to get in there with a paintbrush or something like that, you could hand pollinate and that doesn’t hurt either, but it’s really not necessary in most cases. 

Erin: Okay. Well, speaking of pollination, Lazia H. She lives in hardiness zone 6b, and she’s wondering what kind of pollinator plant is attractive for parasitic wasps in the garden. She’s having tomato hornworm problems, and she can’t keep up with picking them off. So she’s trying to attract more parasitic wasps to help her with that battle. Any suggestions? 

Joe: Such good questions. There are preferred flowers. And let me just set the stage for this. First of all, a lot of these insects that come into our garden – and specifically parasitic wasps would be a good example of this – they don’t have specialized mouthparts that allow them to go deep enough into some of the flowers that we would have in our garden to collect the nectar. And so you need something that’s more accessible. And that would be the flowers that are more umbel, more flat. 

An example would be yarrow or Queen Anne’s lace. Maybe fennel and dill. Those are all good examples. So the more of those you can plant. You can plant thyme, you could do zinnia, alyssum, cosmos, and coneflowers, and blackeyed Susans. Those that don’t require you to get deep into the flower to get to the nectar.

Those would be the ones that you’re really focused on that are going to attract a lot of different pollinators, especially those parasitic wasps to the garden. So focus on those, and that’s going to go a long way to getting your garden full of those great beneficial insects. 

Erin: I love that. Great. And then Sally P. asked another tomato question. She’s wanting to know – she gets a lot of leaves on her tomato plants, but not many tomatoes. And would you say that it’s the same reasoning that you gave for having a lot of foliage on pepper plants, Joe, but not very many peppers? 

Joe: Yeah, exact same answer. I wouldn’t change anything other than just the fruit, but they’re in the same family. So if you can go back and listen to the answer to that. That would be my answer to this too. Yeah. 

Erin: Yeah. Great. Okay. Jacqueline G. wants to know how do you keep tomatoes in your ultimate tomato cage, Joe?  She says hers are sticking out all over at weird angles, and they’re cutting themselves as they outgrow the cages. 

Joe: Okay. So they’re probably crimping over the cage as the weight of the branch bends down. And that happens. I can’t control it here either. So what I do as they’re escaping the grid pattern, if I can catch it early enough. And I’m telling you from one day to the next makes all the difference on whether you catch it early enough. Because when they get to that height, they’re growing many inches a day and I’ve tried and found out the hard way.

I’ve broken many branches trying to bend it just back into the cage, and a little bit too much will just snap it. So for those that get out and I just don’t want to run the risk of pushing it or manipulating it back in, I use rubber-coated wire that I just purchased online on Amazon. 

If you search there for rubber-coated wire in the lawn and garden section, this is what’s going to come up probably. But it comes in different shades of green. It’s just very easy to work with, it lasts forever. A little bit goes a long way, but you’ll have it. And I just use it as what I call “cage extensions.” And so I’ll just manipulate some of the wire around part of the metal cage. And then I’ll take that branch that has escaped and I’ll set it within the wire and I’ll bring the wire around the outside of the branch and then secure the wire to another part of the cage.

And usually, I’m getting several branches at a time because if I have one thug, I’ve got multiples that are all trying to do the same thing because birds of a feather, right? So I kind of gather them together and take a piece of that wire that I’ve cut. And then I just kind of prop them up and the wire holds them in place. And it’s almost like adding another piece of the cage to the outside. But the beauty of it is because of the shade of the green, you don’t even notice it’s there, but it holds the branches upright and prevents what’s happening here. And that’s my trick. And it works pretty well, but it doesn’t solve all the issues, but it goes a long way to solving that problem. 


tomato plant

I use this rubber-coated wire to secure stray branches to the tomato cage. This helps prevents unruly branches from crimping over the cage as the weight of the branch bends down.


Erin: And Jacqueline, I would recommend too – Joe did a tour from the GardenFarm™, not too long ago, a Facebook live tour. And so for those of you podcast listeners who aren’t a member of the joegardener group, you might want to join in because periodically throughout the growing season, Joe does do Facebook live videos where he does a tour, and he answers questions and shows you around the GardenFarm. And, Jacqueline, you could find one of his Facebook live videos recently that demonstrates that. So check that out and you can see it for yourself. 

And then, Joe, Jacqueline also wanted to know how to tell if a watermelon is ready to harvest. 

Joe: Okay. So there are basically four things that you can do. Carefully pick it up and look at what’s called the “field spot.” And that’s the point of contact of that watermelon against the ground. And until it’s ripe, that spot is white or whitish. And as it is ripe, it goes from white to yellow, or maybe a creamy yellow, or even a bright yellow. But until it’s got a yellow tone, it’s not ripe. The other thing that you can do is thump on it. And you hear that all the time. But what you’re really listening for is a hollow sound kind of like a drum. Not a dense sound. If it’s dense, it’s just not ripe yet. So that was informative. 

Erin: Eureka! Viola! As Joe Lamp’l likes to say. 

Joe: But you want a hollow kind of a drum sound like a deep sound as opposed to more of a tinny sound. 

And then there’s a little curly tendril. Like a pig’s tail, but right at the stem where it joins the watermelon. And until that is brown and it looks like it’s done, the watermelon is still ripening. So if it’s green and pliable and kind of springy, it’s not ripe yet. But once it turns brown and it looks like it’s just more woody than it is green, that’s an indicator.

So you’ve got the spot, you’ve got the sound, you’ve got the tendril. So if I said four things and I only gave you three. I’ll say the fourth is cut it open and taste it. And if it tastes good, it’s ripe. 

Erin: The gardener’s solution. The ultimate gardener’s solution.

Joe: Right. Oh, I guess the other thing is knowing the size – knowing the mature size. I will say there are four things, and the fourth would be looking at that information to know what is the mature size. And if it’s close to that, that’s another indicator. Probably, maybe the least effective of the four. But you need to know that too. 

Erin: Well, I love this next question. It’s from Missy B., Joe. And she wants to know if there’s anything that you have planted in your garden that you either didn’t like or was such an epic failure that you said you’d never grow it again.

Joe: Wow. I haven’t had any epic failures. And if I did, that would give me all the reason to grow it again.

Erin: True! Very true. If anything, that would make you more determined the following season.

Joe: There’s no way I’m going to go down to one season of failure. I need to know what happened, and I’m going to grow that sucker out. And I’m going to make it work. So that isn’t ever going to be an issue for me. But I can’t think of one where it’s been an epic failure, even one season. 

But, there are things that I don’t love growing, and I’ll tell you why. I love eating all these things I’m about to mention. I just don’t love growing them. One is okra because it gets so huge. Okra doesn’t produce enough for me to make it worth giving up that much garden space for these giant tall plants. And the thing that okra, and squash, and cucumbers (the other things that I’m not loving growing) have in common, is the reaction that my skin has against the leaves. They’re prickly and they cause my skin to itch.

And so for me, it’s a tactile thing also that causes me not to like it so much. And all three of those get really big – the squash and the cukes do too. And I don’t love them enough to give up garden space for those when I could go to a farmer’s market. 

Erin: Grow more tomatoes.

Joe: Yeah, well maybe, but right. 

Erin: We know.  We know.

Joe: And there was something else about okra I will say. And I love okra – I love okra, but you gotta catch it between two and four inches. And if you miss a day, you miss the window because it’s over. There are some varieties that apparently you can let it get bigger. But the crimson spineless and the things that we love to eat – the classic varieties – are not good after it’s four inches. It’s too tough and they grow so fast, they can double in size in a day. And once they’re too big, you just miss the whole opportunity. And let’s face it, I can’t get out there every single day sometimes. 

And then the last thing is pole beans. I love my pole beans, but I don’t love bean beetles, and bean beetles love pole beans more than I do. And so they show up in force and they proliferate so quickly. It’s hard for me even to keep up with them. And again, you need to be out there every day to try to manage them. And I just can’t with my schedule. I can’t get out there and then it just becomes not worth the effort to me. So that’s my answer. 

Erin: Okay. Great. I loved that question. That’s a fun question.

Joe: Yea it was. 

Erin: Now onto Lucia H. She’s wondering what is the best way to deal with Japanese beetles on raspberries, roses, and hibiscus? And I know you had some on your eggplant recently, too. So you’re always dealing with Japanese beetles as well. 

Joe: Yeah. And I only really bothered with them in my vegetable garden on the few plants that they come to right now. They’re all over my eggplant, but they’re not doing enough damage even though they are there, and there’s quite a few of them. I don’t really even sweat it. I haven’t been out there every day knocking them off (as I suggest people do) into a cup of soapy water. And that is my method of control because it’s easy enough to do, and it solves the problem to my satisfaction. So my level of tolerance is that, and it works. There are a couple of things that I have yet to try that I’m excited to try, but I haven’t had enough of a problem to make it really a big deal.

But maybe for Lucia, this would be something you’d want to try. You got two options. One is a biological control using nematodes that will specifically seek out the larval grub of the Japanese beetle that overwinter. So once the Japanese beetle is done for the summer, it goes down into the soil and lays its eggs. Eggs become grubs. And that’s what lives until late spring when they emerge again as adult beetles. But in that time, when they’re underground as grubs, there are specific nematodes that will find those Japanese beetles and they will kill them and you’ll have to go online. I know the name of it, but I can’t pronounce it.

Erin: It’s about 17 consonants long. 

Joe: But you can find if you Google nematodes that attack Japanese beetles. You will get that information. And there are a couple of places like Gardens Alive and maybe ARBICO Organics.

Erin: And we also did a great podcast on beneficial nematodes where we linked to, and we named the specific nematode that would work for Japanese beetles too. So we’ll link to that in the show notes.

Joe: Good. Thank you. Yeah. From the University of Florida, that was a great podcast. 

Erin: That was such a great podcast. It’s fascinating.

Joe: And then the other thing – you all know that I’m a big fan of using Bt, (bacillus thuringiensis) but there are multiple strains of it that are specific at going after certain things. And so the typical Btk is what we often recommend for caterpillar larva – the armyworms and the things that really go after our leafy crops so much. But Btg is what you’re looking for. But it specifically targets the larval grubs of Japanese beetles.

And that one is really neat because it comes in two forms. One is a powder that you can put into the soil and it goes down and it takes out the grubs at that stage. Or you can actually spray it onto your plants while they’re there – while the adults are there eating your leaves, and it will get them that way. And again, there are a couple places you can Google sources for that, but you’ll find it.  If you look for Btg and a source for that, you’ll find it. And it’s worth a try. 

One of the other sources that was common for so long was milky spore. Milky spore is effective. It’s a bacteria that kills the grub. It goes inside of the grub. The grub gets infected, and it’s the inoculant for more bacteria. And then over time, it really spreads over your whole yard or your whole garden area. But you’ve got to apply it at the right time, and it’s a little tricky to work with. It does work, but it’s kind of fallen out of favor to some of these other things that have come on board. And so that is an option as well. 

So those are three good options. 

The one that I would tell you not to use – and you probably already know this – is the Japanese beetle trap. They are very, very effective, but they are too effective in that they attract so many Japanese beetles that they can’t contain them all. So you end up bringing in more than you can contain. And now you’ve thrown this big party. You’ve got all these people that crashed it, that you want to go away and they won’t. So of course my recommendation for that, if you’re determined to use a Japanese beetle trap is to go ahead and just put it in your neighbor’s yard. And that ought to do the trick, right? 

Erin: Throw the party at the neighbor’s house.

Joe: Yes! So there are some options. 

Erin: Okay, great. So we also had a call in question. We gave people the option to either submit a comment in text or to dial in and leave their questions there. And Linda asked about succession planting. So let’s give a listen to Linda’s question. 

Joe: Okay.

Caller: Hi, Joe. My name is Linda Morris. I’m in San Diego, California. I really enjoy your show. I listen to your podcasts all the time. My question is – I’m struggling with succession planting and trying to establish a calendar. Do you have any tips on how to know when to start the next round of seed? It seems like my starts are struggling, waiting for the other plant to finish.  I would love any suggestions you could give me. Thank you so much.

Joe: We did a podcast on this very subject with my good friend and succession planting ninja, Meg Cowden of Now, unlike you, Linda, Meg lives in a very cold climate near Minneapolis-St. Paul. So she’s got a really short growing season. So naturally, she’s got her work cut out for her to get the most out of her garden in the short time that she has to do so. And yet, does she ever. 

Now you, on the other hand, have the opposite problem in San Diego with a perpetual growing season but with varying layers of heat. But in both cases, your goal is the same: plant as much as you can from seed to harvest to take advantage of that growing space. And then the sweet spot on timing for whatever it is that you’re growing to fully mature before the weather does it in.

So based on your question, it sounds like you’re starting your seeds in trays. And they’re just outgrowing their space before they can be planted in the ground to take over space from the plants that should be finishing up about then. But you’re hitting what I call the “conundrum zone.” That’s basically the intersection where new plants need to go into the same place that the older plants haven’t finished using yet. And that’s always a challenge on what to do. 

So to your question about a planting calendar to figure this all out, and back to Meg. Meg has created the best guide that I’ve ever seen on succession planting. It’s a kind of a calendar format in a very organized way. And even though she created it for herself, and I think it’s zone 5b, she made it really useful for anyone in the country with easy to follow references on how to convert that guide to your zone wherever you are across the U.S. and Canada.

So that’s my best suggestion on a calendar format for planting, and we’ll have the link to the podcast that we did with Meg on succession planting. That alone is worth the time to listen to it. It’s a fascinating discussion. So that will be there. And there will also be a link on how you can get that guide for yourself in the show notes for this episode. And the way that you get there is on our website at under the Podcast tab, and this is episode 164. 

And the other suggestion I have for you, if you’re not doing this already is to use grow bags to create extra space, to provide that intermediate area before final planting. Or you can just allow that to be the new permanent home for those newer plants. That’s what I’m doing here with my second round of tomato plants, as you’ve already heard today. I’ve got 45 plants growing in my garden, but I don’t have any more room than that.

But the first plantings are all still producing in the raised beds. And so I don’t want to take them out yet. But my new plants need to get into the ground now because I am doing a second succession planting of tomatoes. And they need all the time they can get to produce those tomatoes before the first frost comes on. But I don’t have the room in my original beds, so I’m using the grow bags. So that’s my newfound space, and it allows me to do my succession planting without sacrificing my initial crop that is still pretty productive. 

So I hope that helps, Linda. So please be sure to check out those resources that we’ll link to in the show notes. And I think that’s going to help you a lot, and I hope it does, Linda. Thanks for your question. 

Erin: And last but not least, Joe, Susan H. had a great question. Another one that I really loved. She wanted to know: if you couldn’t garden, what would you be doing? 

Joe: Sleeping. And I’m not much of a sleeper actually, thank goodness. 

Erin: No kidding!

Joe: It’s probably not good for my health, but I’m too excited to get up and start gardening again. But to Susan’s question, if I wasn’t gardening or couldn’t garden, I would teach horticulture at the college level. I love to teach. And I love the geeky part of it, the science part of it, the experiment part of it. That stuff, to me, never gets old. And it’s just so exciting. So if I stayed in the field, I would just teach horticulture and enjoy that. However, if I branched out slightly, I think I would go back and get a degree in entomology because, as much as I love gardening and the growing part, the insect world that is involved with your garden blows my mind every day.

I am forever fascinated by all of that. So entomology would be something I would totally get into. And then if I deviated away from all of that and went into a different world altogether…

Erin: So many options!

Joe: I know! And if I went into a different world altogether, I’ve always said, when I retire, I’d want to be like a park ranger.  Just being out in nature in the woods. I don’t care what job I had. I just like the idea of being a park ranger and having some responsibility for stewarding our natural resources and protecting them, and preserving them, and educating people – whether it’s in a nature preserve. 

The other thing for me is, I have a heart for animals. And so it would be animal rescue or environmental awareness, I guess, or a scientist or researcher involved in the wilderness.

I always see people that are doing animal welfare or environmental protection where they’re out in the ocean on a pontoon boat or one of those floating boats. They’re scooping up oil samples or pulling out plastic from the ocean, or saving the whales, or saving the elephants.

Erin: Making a difference. 

Joe: Making a difference. And, Erin, that’s the essence. That’s the essence. I just appreciate what nature has to offer. And I just feel like there’s, unfortunately, too many people who don’t. And during my watch, I want to do all that I can to maybe convert one person towards more of a preservation than a destruction side.

Erin: Win the battle one person at a time. 

Joe: So that would be my thing, and it still will be my thing. Because I’ll always garden, but I don’t know that I’ll always do it for a living. I love it. And as long as I can make somewhat of a living at it, I will. But I want to give back more as soon as I can. And so those are probably the areas where you’ll find me someday – hopefully sooner than later. 

Erin: Yeah, I love that. 

Joe: Yeah, that’s interesting. Thanks, Susan. 

Erin: Yeah. Well, those are great questions. We have such a fantastic joegardener group. And this is just an example of just some of the great questions that they’re in there asking on a regular basis of each other as well. And they’re just very engaged and just love what they’re doing, and they love being a part of your group.

Joe: And we love having them as a part of the group too. 

Erin: Yeah.

So there you have it. Some really excellent thought-provoking questions from our always-inquisitive social media community.  Thanks to all of you who submitted your questions for this gardening Q&A. Did you learn anything new as you were reading over my answers in the show notes? If you did, be sure to share what you learned in the comments below. And don’t forget to listen in to the audio version of this fun conversation by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.


Links & Resources

Episode 016: Composting Guide A to Z: The Quick and Dirty on Everything Compost

Episode 045: Succession Planting: Practical Tips For Growing More Food

Episode 063: Garden Fertilizer Basics: What to Know Before You Grow

Episode 068: Top Predatory Beneficial Insects and How to Attract Them, Pt. 2

Episode 099: Understanding Crop Rotation: The Basics and Beyond, with Jack Algiere

Episode 115: Understanding Tomato Diseases and How to Deal With Them

Episode 118: The Power of Mushrooms: Its Potential to Cure Environmental Threats & More

Episode 144: Understanding Nematodes: Microscopic Worms, Friend or Foe of Your Garden

Episode 160: Gardening Pet Peeves – My Top 10 from Joe Lamp’l

joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Make the Ultimate Tomato Cage

joegardener Online Academy  Three popular online courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!

joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases and Weeds – Just $47 for lifetime access!

joegardenerTV YouTube

joegardener Newsletter

joegardener Facebook

joegardener Facebook Group

joegardener Instagram

joegardener Twitter

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About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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